You can’t replace fossil fuels with renewables like swapping out a battery. The Global North will also have to drastically reduce its energy use.
On 20 March, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the window to keep warming below 1.5 degrees was rapidly closing. Still, the panel’s chair Hoesung Lee insisted that the solutions we need are “already available”. “Lowering demand for carbon intensive goods and services,” he stressed, “is a particularly promising way to reduce emissions.”
Lee reiterated what the IPCC reported last year, when it argued that emissions in all sectors can be reduced by 50-80% using a “demand-side strategy”. Put simply, this means that the world can and – if it is to mitigate the most devastating effects of climate change – must use a lot less energy. More specifically, given that the world’s richest 10% are responsible for half of all emissions, the Global North must change its energy-hungry habits. More efficient technologies can help with some of this, but cannot account for the sheer volume of reductions needed. What this means is that, whether they mean to or not, the IPCC has set itself up for a confrontation with the capitalist class.
Wealth gives its holder the power to command vast swaths of land, labour, and energy without any democratic input. The world’s wealthy travel great distances, heat and cool large homes, eat land-hungry foods like beef and pork, buy piles of consumer goods forged in oil-fuelled factories, and invest their capital in polluting industries, which creates even more wealth.
It should be no surprise, then, that climate change is largely the fault of the rich. In 2019, the bottom 50% of the world’s population emitted a mere 12% of global carbon emissions. As the eco-socialist writer Andreas Malm puts it: “The grotesque concentration of resources for burning at the top of the human pyramid is a scourge for all living beings; an effective climate policy would be the total expropriation of the top 1 to 10 per cent.”
Rather than confront this extraordinary inequality, politicians in the Global North promise that nothing much needs to change. In 2021, for instance, US President Joe Biden drove a massive electric pickup truck to promote his decarbonisation plan, perhaps hoping to appeal to centrist suburban voters. Activists around the world noticed. In the “Manifesto for an Ecosocial Energy Transition from the Peoples of the South” recently released by a network of groups from the Global South, the signatories critique this market-based “decarbonisation of the rich”.
The groups point out that many leaders in the Global North want to make only marginal changes to their economies – trading gasoline-powered cars in for electric ones, for example – and are willing to foist “a new colonialism” onto countries of the Global South to ensure the natural resources they need for the transition are supplied cheaply. As the manifesto argues, the “imperative to move beyond fossil fuels without any significant reduction in consumption in the North”, or any change at all in the capitalist system, will not only lead to poverty for much of the world, but continued environmental destruction.
The realities of the energy transition – repeatedly outlined by the IPCC – make it clear that lives in the Global North must change. The world cannot simply trade out the fossil fuel energy system and replace it with renewables like one would a set of batteries. Expecting everything else to remain the same is a form of science denial.
Take aviation, a major source of carbon inequality. Airlines and governments in the North are firm that reducing the number of flights is out of the question. Instead, they claim that they will simply replace kerosene with green fuels.
This plan falls apart on any closer inspection. In theory, you could use green electricity to make carbon-neutral synthetic jet fuel and use this to power all flights from the UK. However, the energy needed for this would be more than double the country’s entire electricity generation in 2021. An alternative would be to grow land-hungry biofuels. If this were the plan, the UK would have to repurpose two-thirds of its croplands to allow a fraction of the population to fly.
Apart from plans that don’t add up or technologies yet to be invented, capital’s preferred solution to global heating is to put a price on carbon emissions. Mainstream economists think of climate change as an “externality” or unintended consequence not included in the price tag. The idea is that if we were to pay for the real costs of climate change when we buy, say, gasoline, the price would be a lot higher, and the market would solve the problem.
While putting a price on carbon, either through a tax or cap-and-trade regulations, could shift some patterns, it would leave inequality unaddressed. Moreover, a carbon tax assumes the private sector will do all the work of decarbonisation, ignoring the central role of public provisions like mass transit systems. In the Global North, the rich will continue their extraordinary consumption, while the poor, without assistance, will see skyrocketing prices for their daily commutes.
A fairer solution is to decide collectively, through democratic mechanisms like citizens assemblies, how much we are willing to take from nature – for instance, the number of zero-carbon flights we can afford, the amount of meat we can stomach, and the kind of electricity we generate – and then distribute those resources equally.
Such an approach would ensure we stay within our fast-disappearing carbon budget and that it is allocated fairly. This may seem radical, but we already live in a world of rationing in which people’s rights to emit are strictly proscribed. The only difference is that today this system is based on wealth. Why should Northern corporate lawyer get to fly across continents every few weeks, while 640 million Africans can’t even turn on a light?
The green transition, though, is about more than aviation or cars. We need to think about individuals’ overall energy use and work out quotas that are feasible if we are to limit climate change. The exact number can be debated, but one good target is proposed by the 2,000-Watt society. This brainchild of Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology proposes that people’s annual consumption of energy around the world should converge on 2,000W per person per year. This target would see the consumption of the rich significantly contract and the consumption of the poor significantly increase.
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In 2021, an average US citizen used 9,000W, a German 5,000W, and a Nigerian just 300W (though enormous inequality also exists within countries). In a 2,000W world, the lifestyles of the highest emitters would have to change, but most of humanity would be better off in absolute terms. Scientists have also put forward other proposals to how we can provide decent living to ten billion people in 2050 all while using 60% less energy than today – they too take an axe to many forms of bourgeois consumption.
The causes of the environmental crisis are not mysterious and, as the IPCC recently reiterated, nor are the solutions. The challenge for humanity this century is to provide a material basis for flourishing to all people on this planet – including clean energy, stable housing, healthy food, and the ability to participate in meaningful democratic control of the economic forces which govern our lives – while maintaining healthy ecosystems and a stable climate, for the good of humans and non-humans alike.
How we overcome global capital may not be fully clear, but it is clear that building a better world will require solidarity across borders. In these alliances, activists from the North cannot avoid questions of inequality nor the demands of their counterparts in the South.
Drew Pendergrass is a PhD student in environmental engineering at Harvard University and co-author of the book Half-Earth Socialism, along with historian Troy Vettese.